In an effort that you would think would make the Occupiers happy, the Ontario government has put a cap of 3 per cent on tuition increases. The cap will be effective for the next four years, and is down from the previous 5 per cent that the cap has sat at for the past seven years. Not all tuition costs are safe from this, as professional and graduate programs will be capped at 5 per cent; still a drop from the 8 per cent its been at for the past several years.
It was Brad Duguid, Ontario’s Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities, that made the policy change and cap announcement on Thursday. And it’s one that you would think would be met with resounding cheers from just about all around. But, not too many people are happy about them. The universities are concerned about a further hampering of their revenue, especially at a time when the government has stripped them of so much public funding. And those who have been calling for caps and tuition freezes say that these just aren’t enough. Students, who you would think would be the happiest of the bunch, say that university costs are simply still too high; and oftentimes, out of their reach.
Addressing the concerns of the students, Mr. Duguid stated that they can’t make too many cutbacks, or ultimately the quality of the education the students receive will suffer. And therefore, the students will end up paying the price anyway.
“It’s a case of finding the sweet spot between ensuring that our pos-tsecondary education system remains affordable while ensuring that it still remains globally competitive,” he said. “If we go too far in curbing tuition, we’re not doing young people any favours because we’d be impacting the quality of their education.”
But the universities argue that these costs, while seemingly small, are going to hurt the students anyway. They give actual figures for the rising cost of education, and the amount the government is now limiting them to through these new cap figures. And if you’re sitting on the universities’ side of things, those numbers are alarming.
In a letter written to the Minister of Training, and signed by all 20 provincial university presidents, they stated specifically just how much this cap would cost them. $48 million for this coming year; and $459 million over the course of the four years the cap would be in effect. This,they say, at a time when the costs of providing education only continue to rise.
Bonnie Patterson, president of the Council of Ontario Universities (COU) acknowledged that there would be tough choices ahead, and that the universities would do what they could to limit the impact on students. However, she also acknowledges that, due to limited funding – and now revenue – even deeper cuts and changes could be felt.
“We understand that students and parents really are looking for a change,” she said. “We’ll do our very best within these changes to maintain the quality that we have, and to make the kinds of difficult decisions that will now follow,” she said.
“Inevitably, we will be looking internally and questioning how we’re going to continue to do things. Unless we can change compensation structures, we will be looking at job losses,” said Alastair Summerlee, president of the University of Guelph and chair of the COU.
Dr. Summerlee also says that, while the government does have many programs in place to help with tuition for those students that are struggling, she says that it can often be seen as “smoke and mirrors” – a way for the government to try to show support by providing programs such as the Ontario Tuition Grant, which discounts tuition for students by as much as 30 per cent.
“There’s a powerful argument to say all of the supports that are put in place actually discount the sticker price that gets bandied about as students paying excessively high levels of fees in Ontario,” she says. “But that’s also a very tricky argument to get out because it sounds like you’re engaging in sort of smoke and mirrors around it.”
Meanwhile, there’s the group that thinks the universities should receive even less money, in the way of higher tuition caps and even tuition freezes.
Sarah Jayne King, chairperson of the Canadian Federation of Students, Ontario, says that these caps just aren’t enough. Especially when you compare it to the 30 per cent reduction they asked for in tuition fees, along with three years of re-investments in government funding.
“It’s very disappointing to see the government continue on this path of increasing tuition fees and making sure education becomes further and further out of reach for low and middle-income families, and indebting students who pursue post-secondary education even further,” says Ms. King.
Alysha Li, president of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance, has also spoken out as a voice for students, saying that while the cap “is progress,” it’s still not enough. She points out the fact that “the 3 per cent is still above inflation and still makes post-secondary education less affordable every year.”
So what is the answer? While many seem to agree with at least a 3 per cent cap, it’s mostly an issue of universities finding more revenue, and passing those cost-savings onto the students. Unfortunately for professors at those universities, the Sunshine List – a list of all the top earners in Ontario – also came out at the same time as this controversy. The majority of careers of the people on that list were university professors.
And that has many saying that slashing these salaries, as well as possibly doing away with unnecessary courses, may be the middle ground answer that everyone’s looking for.